Welcome to Political Outliers, a column that explores groups of Americans who are often portrayed as all voting the same way. In today’s climate, it’s easy to focus on how a group identifies politically, but that’s never the full story. Blocs of voters are rarely uniform in their beliefs, which is why this column will dive into undercovered parts of the electorate, showing how diverse and atypical most voters are.
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In a normal election year, Richard Leonardon, 60, would be supporting a Republican or independent political candidate. But during at least one race in his lifetime, Leonardon broke his habit.
It was 1996, when he was living in Pennsylvania’s 14th District, long represented by William Coyne, a Democrat. The Republican candidate, Bill Ravotti, didn’t really stand a chance of defeating Coyne, but Leonardon still couldn’t bring himself to vote for Ravotti. Instead, Leonardon wrote his own name on the ballot.1 That’s because, as a gay man, Leonardon found certain comments Ravotti made about gays and lesbians unsettling. Leonardon stressed that “someone does not have to be very ‘pro-gay’ to get my vote.” He just doesn’t want politicians to espouse openly anti-gay views, adding that his policy when assessing political candidates is generally “I won’t discuss it if you won’t discuss it.”
But the fact that Leonardon voted for a Republican even once — and has continued to support Republican or independent candidates — is notable because most lesbian, gay and bisexual voters tend to identify as Democrats.2 Lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans still represent a small share of the adult population (about 5 percent), but a 2016 Pew Research Center study found that 82 percent of LGB voters identified as or leaned Democratic while only 18 percent identified as or leaned toward the GOP. Moreover, LGB voters were much more likely than the electorate overall to hold broadly liberal political beliefs.
That said, there’s still a small but growing number of LGB voters who are loyal to the GOP. This is true for many reasons, but one of the biggest threads I stumbled upon in my interviews and research is that many LGB Republicans see their sexuality and politics as separate. They’re also more likely to factor normal GOP dogma — favoring lower taxes, less federal government intervention and some restrictions on abortion — into their identity. On top of that, most believe that the party has changed a lot in its treatment of same-sex couples. During his presidential campaign in 2016, for example, Donald Trump made overt appeals to LGBTQ voters, and ahead of the 2020 election, he announced an LGBTQ coalition, with Richard Grenell, the openly gay U.S. ambassador to Germany at the time, campaigning on Trump’s behalf.
More generally speaking, Republican voters also seem to have changed their attitude toward issues like same-sex marriage. According to Gallup, which has been tracking Americans’ support for marriage equality since 1996, a record-high 70 percent of all adults now believe that same-sex marriage should be recognized by the law and that same-sex couples should have the same rights as opposite-sex couples who are married. And for the first time ever, a majority of Republicans (55 percent) also say they support same-sex marriage.
Historically, though, many LGB voters have tended to lean Democratic because the Republican Party has actively campaigned against LGB rights and, in some cases, the LGBTQ community itself. In 2003, then-Sen. Rick Santorum, who would go on to run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012 and 2016, notoriously likened homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality, and in his 2004 reelection bid, then-President George W. Bush called for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, something he proposed again in 2006. These examples aren’t some relic of how the GOP used to operate either. In October, just before he was elected governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin said he was personally opposed to same-sex marriage. And even Trump, for all his courting of LGBTQ voters, sided with the Colorado baker who argued in a 2018 Supreme Court case that his religious beliefs were justification for not making wedding cakes for same-sex couples.
Stuart Turnbull-Dugarte, a political science professor at the University of Southampton who has done research on how sexual identity affects vote choice, noted that this not-so-distant history is one big reason why there’s a strong correlation between identifying as LGB and voting Democratic. “The Democrats, while being slow on endorsing [same-sex marriage] pre-Obama, have always been the more pro-LGB of the two parties, and LGB voters have rewarded these pro-LGB stances by awarding Democratic candidates with their votes on polling day,” he told me. Turnbull-Dugarte added that even in cases where Democrats are somewhat lukewarm on issues related to LGBTQ rights, they’re still often more open compared with Republicans. “Between a silent Democrat and an anti-gay Republican, LGBs know which candidate is going to improve — or at least not damage — their welfare.”
Still, there are signs that the GOP is making inroads with this bloc: According to Pew, which used exit polling data, 22 percent of LGB voters backed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, while 24 percent backed Republican candidates during the 2014 midterm elections. Some estimates also suggest that Trump won as much as 27 percent of the LGBT vote in 2020 — which, if true, would be the highest share of support any Republican presidential nominee has ever received from this group.
“I think I’m accepted in the Republican Party. A lot of Republicans don’t like gays, but they say, ‘What you do is your own business,’” Leonardon said. “I don’t feel the Republican Party has an anti-gay bias nearly as much as it used to, particularly because the older Republicans have died off and the ones 50 and under just don’t care as much.”
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It’s true that younger Republicans are close to their Democratic peers in supporting LGBTQ rights. But there’s still a tension some LGB Republicans must grapple with when navigating their political identity: While the GOP writ large has gradually softened its stance on same-sex marriage, the six people I spoke with still have to square existing within a party where some prominent voting blocs like white evangelical Christians still don’t fully embrace the sexual orientation of LGB Americans — and where party leaders sometimes still espouse homophobic sentiments.
On top of that, a few people told me that it’s hard for them to feel accepted within larger LGBTQ communities due to their political beliefs. But, for the most part, how much they feel the need to address that tension runs in tandem with how central being lesbian, gay or bisexual is in their life.
“Being a gay conservative, you always find yourself hiding one part of yourself from another and switching in between these two communities and never being able to find that balance,” said E.A., a 24-year-old in Washington, D.C., who asked to be identified by his initials out of fear of retribution for his beliefs and sexual orientation. “I can’t speak for other people, but for my friends and I, this is something we commonly run into.”
E.A. isn’t alone on this. Several people I spoke to said it’s easier to be lesbian, gay or bisexual in Republican circles than a Republican in LGBTQ circles. That may have to do with one of the biggest differences between LGB Republicans and LGB Democrats: that most LGB Republicans see their sexuality as separate from — or secondary to — their political identity.
According to an October 2020 study from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, 54 percent of LGB Republicans said their sexual orientation was an insignificant part of who they are compared with 38 percent of LGB Democrats who felt the same. Conversely, 85 percent of LGB Democrats said that being LGB was a “very important” aspect of themselves versus 68 percent of LGB Republicans.
“While most LGBs are strong Democrats, the minority who do ‘break ranks’ with the group tend to have a lower sense of identification with the LGB identity,” said Turnbull-Dugarte. “These are likely to be people who, whilst they may have a same-sex partner, might not necessarily be participants in gay culture or be fans of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’”
Leonardon told me he fell into this bucket. “My sexual orientation being gay is just a tiny part of me and doesn’t really affect where I stand politically,” he said. “I think the Democratic Party tends to pander too much to various groups, and I think we should look at people more as individuals than as part of a group.”
E.A. agreed. “I don’t see someone’s sexuality as a defining factor of one’s character or personality. I see my sexuality as a part of me, as I would see my arm or any other facet that creates who I am. It doesn’t define whether I lean more left or right,” he said.
Another important distinction, Turnbull-Dugarte noted, is that LGB Republican voters are far less likely to view society as being biased or discriminatory toward the LGBTQ population. “In other words, they do not share the claims of the LGBTQ ‘collective’ as being a group subjected to systematic marginalization,” he said.
And it’s true that in my interviews, many said they didn’t think Republicans were actively vilifying them anymore. Moreover, some said that the party simply didn’t talk about same-sex marriage as much as it used to. “I feel like gay rights isn’t an issue now since it’s pretty much settled,” said Nestor Moto Jr., a 26-year-old gay Republican living in California. “The court has already decided.”
But that doesn’t mean being in the GOP still isn’t without difficulties. Some of the people I spoke with felt as if they had to hide or suppress parts of their identity because they worried about being alienated either due to their sexuality or their politics. This is something the Williams Institute study suggested was a common sentiment shared among LGB Republicans versus LGB Democrats. Per its research, 46 percent of LGB Republicans (compared with 72 percent of LGB Democrats) said they felt like a part of the LGBT community. Meanwhile, only 45 percent of LGB Republicans (and 70 percent of LGB Democrats) said they felt a bond with the LGB community.
I spoke to Alex P., a 32-year-old bisexual man living in California who does not want his last name used due to privacy concerns. He told me he’s happily married to a woman with whom he’s open about his struggles, but beyond that, only a few close friends and family members know about his sexual orientation. He added, however, that due to his religion and political beliefs, he’s never acted as he says “outwardly gay” — even though he’s been inclined to do so.
“I didn’t really come to terms with my bisexuality until I was in my mid-20s, but I’m also a Christian and I believe the Bible is authoritative,” he said. “My personal preferences are secondary to that.” He added, however, that he thinks some conservatives “are not compassionate” toward people who are not heterosexual. “One of the errors conservatives make is they assume because one is LGBT, that makes one a liberal or someone who doesn’t care about the morality of their sexual behavior. My hope is that society would understand that LGBT people are not a uniform bloc and that some do not view their sexuality as their primary identity.”
What it’s like for some gay men to come out as Republican
E.A., meanwhile, said he’s run into issues explaining his politics and sexuality with people on dating apps, in particular. “There’s been a number of times where I’ve interacted with people and the first question is, ‘Well, you’re not a Republican, right?’” he told me. “On Hinge, if you have ‘moderate’ in your profile, it means you’re conservative. There’s small, nuanced things one always has to navigate as a gay Republican, and I don’t think straight Republicans or gay Democrats have to worry about that.” Moto said he’s run into similar issues: “It’s easier to tell Republicans that I’m gay than to tell gay people I’m a Trump supporter. I lost a couple friends back [in 2016] and people were very hostile; that’s one reason I got out of politics because I didn’t want people to continue to harass me.”
But of the LGB Republicans I spoke with, none seemed to hold any deep-seated resentment toward the GOP over negative interactions they’ve had regarding their sexuality. In fact, they all seemed to really agree with the party’s message, and many said they also thought that Democrats had gone too far left in recent years. Leonardon, for example, told me he’s been loyal to Republican or independent candidates because he prioritizes other issues — “tax issues, government-regulation issues [and] free-speech issues.” Meanwhile, Barb Hauxwell, a 61-year-old lesbian from Oklahoma, said she’s firmly pro-Trump and would never go back to voting for Democrats (which she did before she and her sister took over her family’s business). “I’m fiscally conservative. I’m still a Christian — it doesn’t matter whether I’m gay or not. I’m against abortion,” she said. “Pretty much everything the conservative party is for, I’m with them.”
To be sure, LGB Republicans make up a small slice of the LGBTQ community and an even smaller slice of the electorate, but for now at least, the Republican platform seemed to hold more weight for them than any negativity and vilification they might experience because of their sexuality.
Hauxwell put it bluntly: “Sex is only a small part of our lives, and now that I’m older, I don’t even have it, so it doesn’t matter.”